Ian Hay.

All in It : K(1) Carries On A Continuation of the First Hundred Thousand online

. (page 10 of 14)
Online LibraryIan HayAll in It : K(1) Carries On A Continuation of the First Hundred Thousand → online text (page 10 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


various underground fastnesses well known to the extractors. The whole
enterprise was then thoroughly rehearsed in some dummy trenches behind
the line, until every one knew his exact part. Such is modern warfare.

Next day the Kidney Bean Redoubt was in British hands again.
The Hun - what was left of him after an intensive bombardment of
twenty-four hours - had betaken himself back over the ridge, _via_ the
remnants of his two new communication trenches, to his original front
line. The two communication trenches themselves were blocked and
sandbagged, and were being heavily supervised by a pair of British
machine-guns. Fighting in the Redoubt itself had almost ceased, though
a humorous sergeant, followed by acolytes bearing bombs, was still
"combing out" certain residential districts in the centre of the
maze. Ever and anon he would stoop down at the entrance of some deep
dug-out, and bawl -

"Ony mair doon there? Come away, Fritz! I'll gie ye five seconds. Yin,
Twa, Three - "

Then, with a rush like a bolt of rabbits, two or three close-cropped,
grimy Huns would scuttle up from below and project themselves from one
of the exits; to be taken in charge by grinning Caledonians wearing
"tin hats" very much awry, and escorted back through the barrage to
the "prisoners' base" in rear.

All through the day, amidst unremitting shell fire and local
counter-attack, the Hairy Jocks reconsolidated the Kidney Bean; and
they were so far successful that when they handed over the work to
another battalion at dusk, the parapet was restored, the machine-guns
were in position, and a number of "knife-rest" barbed-wire
entanglements were lying just behind the trench, ready to be hoisted
over the parapet and joined together in a continuous defensive line as
soon as the night was sufficiently dark.

One by one the members of Number Nine Platoon squelched - for it had
rained hard all day - back to the reserve line. They were utterly
exhausted, and still inclined to feel a little aggrieved at having
been pulled out from rest; but they were well content. They had done
the State some service, and they knew it; and they knew that the
higher powers knew it too. There would be some very flattering reading
in Divisional Orders in a few days' time.

Meanwhile, their most pressing need was for something to eat. To be
sure, every man had gone into action that morning carrying his day's
rations. But the British soldier, improvident as the grasshopper,
carries his day's rations in one place, and one place only - his
stomach. The Hairy Jocks had eaten what they required at their
extremely early breakfast: the residue thereof they had abandoned.

About midnight Master Cockerell, in obedience to a most welcome order,
led the remnants of his command, faint but triumphant, back from the
reserve line to a road junction two miles in rear, known as Dead Dog
Corner. Here the Battalion was to _rendezvous_, and march back by easy
stages to St. Grégoire. Their task was done.

But at the cross-roads Number Nine Platoon found no Battalion: only a
solitary subaltern, with his orderly. This young Casabianca informed
Cockerell that he, Second Lieutenant Candlish, had been left behind to
"bring in stragglers."

"Stragglers?" exclaimed the infuriated Cockerell. "Do we look like
stragglers?"

"No," replied the youthful Candlish frankly; "you look more like
sweeps. However, you had better push on. The Battalion isn't far
ahead. The order is to march straight back to St. Grégoire and
re-occupy former billets."

"What about rations?"

"Rations? The Quartermaster was waiting here for us when we
_rendezvoused_, and every man had a full ration and a tot of rum."
(Number Nine Platoon cleared their parched throats expectantly.) "But
I fancy he has gone on with the column. However, if you leg it you
should catch them up. They can't be more than two miles ahead. So
long!"


IV

But the task was hopeless. Number Nine Platoon had been bombing,
hacking, and digging all day. Several of them were slightly
wounded - the serious cases had been taken off long ago by the
stretcher-bearers - and Cockerell's own head was still dizzy from the
fumes of a German gas-shell.

He lined up his disreputable paladins in the darkness, and spoke -

"Sergeant M'Nab, how many men are present?"

"Eighteen, sirr." The platoon had gone into action thirty-four strong.

"How many men are deficient of an emergency ration? I can make a good
guess, but you had better find out."

Five minutes later the Sergeant reported. Cockerell's guess was
correct. The British private has only one point of view about the
portable property of the State. To him, as an individual, the sacred
emergency ration is an unnecessary encumbrance, and the carrying
thereof a "fatigue." Consequently, when engaged in battle, one of the
first (of many) things which he jettisons is this very ration. When
all is over, he reports with unctuous solemnity that the provender
in question has been blown out of his haversack by a shell. The
Quartermaster-Sergeant writes it off as "lost owing to the exigencies
of military service," and indents for another.

Lieutenant Cockerell's haversack contained a packet of meat-lozenges
and about half a pound of chocolate. These were presented to the
Sergeant.

"Hand these round as far as they will go, Sergeant," said Cockerell.
"They'll make a mouthful a man, anyhow. Tell the platoon to lie down
for ten minutes; then we'll push off. It's only fifteen miles. We
ought to make it by breakfast-time ..."

Slowly, mechanically, all through the winter night the victors hobbled
along. Cockerell led the way, carrying the rifle of a man with a
wounded arm. Occasionally he checked his bearings with map and
electric torch. Sergeant M'Nab, who, under a hirsute and attenuated
exterior, concealed a constitution of ferro-concrete and the heart of
a lion, brought up the rear, uttering fallacious assurances to the
faint-hearted as to the shortness of the distance now to be covered,
and carrying two rifles.

The customary halts were observed. At ten minutes to four the men
flung themselves down for the third time. They had covered about seven
miles, and were still eight or nine from St. Grégoire. The everlasting
constellation of Verey lights still rose and fell upon the eastern
horizon behind them, but the guns were silent.

"There might be a Heavy Battery dug in somewhere about here," mused
Cockerell. "I wonder if we could touch them for a few tins of bully.
Hallo, what's that?"

A distant rumble came from the north, and out of the darkness loomed a
British motor-lorry, lurching and swaying along the rough cobbles of
the _pavé_. Some of Cockerell's men were lying dead asleep in the
middle of the road, right at the junction. The lorry was going twenty
miles an hour.

"Get into the side of the road, you men!" shouted Cockerell, "or
they'll run over you. You know what these M.T. drivers are!"

With indignant haste, and at the last possible moment, the kilted
figures scattered to either side of the narrow causeway. The usual
stereotyped and vitriolic remonstrances were hurled after the great
hooded vehicle as it lurched past.

And then a most unusual thing happened. The lorry slowed down, and
finally stopped, a hundred yards away. An officer descended, and began
to walk back. Cockerell rose to his weary feet and walked to meet him.

The officer wore a major's crown upon the shoulder-straps of his
sheepskin-lined "British Warm" and the badge of the Army Service Corps
upon his cap. Cockerell, indignant at the manner in which his platoon
had been hustled off the road, saluted stiffly, and muttered:
"Good-morning, sir!"

"Good-morning!" said the Major. He was a stout man of nearly fifty,
with twinkling blue eyes and a short-clipped mustache. Cockerell
judged him to be one of the few remnants of the original British Army.

"I stopped," explained the older man, "to apologise for the scandalous
way that fellow drove over you. It was perfectly damnable; but you
know what these converted taxi-drivers are! This swine forgot for the
moment that he had an officer on board, and hogged it as usual. He
goes under arrest as soon as we get back to billets."

"Thank you very much, sir," said Master Cockerell, entirely thawed.
"I'm afraid my chaps were lying all over the road; but they are pretty
well down and out at present."

"Where have you come from?" inquired the Major, turning a curious eye
upon Cockerell's prostrate followers.

Cockerell explained When he had finished, he added wistfully -

"I suppose you have not got an odd tin or two of bully to give away,
sir? My fellows are about - "

For answer, the Major took the Lieutenant by the arm and led him
towards the lorry.

"You have come," he announced, "to the very man you want. I am
practically Mr. Harrod. In fact, I am a Corps Supply Officer. How
would a Maconochie apiece suit your boys?"

Cockerell, repressing the ecstatic phrases which crowded to his
tongue, replied that that was just what the doctor had ordered.

"Where are you bound for?" continued the Major.

"St. Grégoire."

"Of course. You were pulled out from there, weren't you? I am going to
St. Grégoire myself as soon as I have finished my round. Home to bed,
in fact. I haven't had any sleep worth writing home about for four
nights. It is no joke tearing about a country full of shell-holes,
hunting for people who have shifted their ration-dump seven times in
four days. However, I suppose things will settle down again, now that
you fellows have fired Brother Boche out of the Kidney Bean. Pretty
fine work, too! Tell me, what is your strength, here and now?"

"One officer," said Cockerell soberly, "and eighteen other ranks."

"All that's left of your platoon?"

Cockerell nodded. The stout Major began to beat upon the tailboard of
the lorry with his stick.

"Sergeant Smurthwaite!" he shouted.

There came a muffled grunt from the recesses of the lorry. Then a
round and ruddy face rose like a harvest moon above the tailboard, and
a stertorous voice replied respectfully -

"Sir?"

"Let down this tailboard; load this officer's platoon into the lorry;
issue them with a Maconochie and a tot of rum apiece; and don't forget
to put Smee under arrest for dangerous driving when we get back to
billets."

"Very good, sir."

Ten minutes later the survivors of Number Nine Platoon, soaked to the
skin, dazed, slightly incredulous, but at peace with all the world,
reclined close-packed upon the floor of the swaying lorry. Each man
held an open tin of Mr. Maconochie's admirable ration between his
knees. Perfect silence reigned: a pleasant aroma of rum mellowed the
already vitiated atmosphere.

In front, beside the chastened Mr. Smee, sat the Major and Master
Cockerell. The latter had just partaken of his share of refreshment,
and was now endeavouring, with lifeless fingers, to light a cigarette.

The Major scrutinised his guest intently. Then he stripped off his
British Warm coat - incidentally revealing the fact that he wore
upon his tunic the ribbons of both South African Medals and the
Distinguished Service Order - and threw it round Cockerell's shoulders.

"I'm sorry, boy!" he said. "I never noticed. You are chilled to the
bone. Button this round you."

Cockerell made a feeble protest, but was cut short.

"Nonsense! There's no sense in taking risks after you've done your
job."

Cockerell assented, a little sleepily. His allowance of rum was
bringing its usual vulgar but comforting influence to bear upon an
exhausted system.

"I see you have been wounded, sir," he observed, noting with a little
surprise two gold stripes upon his host's left sleeve - the sleeve of a
"non-combatant."

"Yes," said the Major. "I got the first one at Le Gateau. He was only
a little fellow; but the second, which arrived at the Second Show at
Ypres, gave me such a stiff leg that I am only an old crock now. I was
second-in-command of an Infantry Battalion in those days. In these, I
am only a peripatetic Lipton. However, I am lucky to be here at all:
I've had twenty-seven years' service. How old are you?"

"Twenty," replied Cockerell. He was too tired to feel as ashamed as he
usually did at having to confess to the tenderness of his years.

The Major nodded thoughtfully.

"Yes," he said; "I judged that would be about the figure. My son would
have been twenty this month, only - he was at Neuve Chapelle. He
was very like you in appearance - very. His mother would have been
interested to meet you. You might as well take a nap for half an hour.
I have two more calls to make, and we shan't get home till nearly
seven. Lean on me, old man. I'll see you don't tumble overboard ..."

So Lieutenant Cockerell, conqueror of the Kidney Bean, fell asleep,
his head resting, with scandalous disregard for military etiquette,
upon the shoulder of the stout Major.


V

An hour or two later, Number Nine Platoon, distended with concentrated
nourishment and painfully straightening its cramped limbs, decanted
itself from the lorry into a little _cul-de-sac_ opening off the Rue
Jean Jacques Rousseau in St. Grégoire. The name of the _cul-de-sac_
was the Rue Gambetta.

Their commander, awake and greatly refreshed, looked round him and
realised, with a sudden sense of uneasiness, that he was in familiar
surroundings. The lorry had stopped at the door of Number Five.

"I don't suppose your Battalion will get back for some time," said the
Major. "Tell your Sergeant to put your men into the stable behind this
house - there's plenty of straw there - and - "

"Their own billet is just round the corner, sir," replied Cockerell.
"They might as well go there, thank you."

"Very good. But come in with me yourself, and doss here for a few
hours. You can report to your C.O. later in the day, when he arrives.
This is my _pied-à-terre_," - rapping on the door. "You won't find many
billets like it. As you see, it stands in this little backwater, and
is not included in any of the regular billeting areas of the town. The
Town Major has allotted it to me permanently. Pretty decent of him,
wasn't it? And Madame Vinot is a dear. Here she is! _Bonjour, Madame
Vinot! Avez-vous un feu_ - er - _inflammé pour moi dans la chambre_?"
Evidently the Major's French was on a par with Cockerell's.

But Madame understood him, bless her!

"_Mais oui, M'sieur le Colonel_!" she exclaimed cheerfully - the rank
of Major is not recognised by the French civilian population - and
threw open the door of the sitting-room, with a glance of compassion
upon the Major's mud-splashed companion, whom she failed to recognise.

A bright fire was burning in the open stove.

Immediately above, pinned to the mantelpiece and fluttering in
the draught, hung Cockerell's manifesto upon the subject of
non-combatants. He could recognise his own handwriting across the
room. The Major saw it too.

"Hallo, what's that hanging up, I wonder?" he exclaimed. "A memorandum
for me, I expect; probably from my old friend 'Dados.'[1] Let us get a
little more light."

[Footnote 1: D.A.D.O.S. Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Stores.]

He crossed to the window and drew up the blind. Cockerell moved too.
When the Major turned round, his guest was standing by the stove, his
face scarlet through its grime.

"I'm awfully sorry, sir," said Cockerell, "but that
notice - memorandum - of yours has dropped into the fire."

"If it came from Dados," replied the Major, "thank you very much!"

"I can't tell you, sir," added Cockerell humbly, "what a fool I feel."

But the apology referred to an entirely different matter.




IX

TUNING UP


I

It is just one year to-day since we "came oot." A year plays havoc
with the "establishment" of a battalion in these days of civilised
warfare. Of the original band of stout-hearted but inexperienced
Crusaders who crossed the Channel in the van of The First Hundred
Thousand, in May, 1915, - a regiment close on a thousand strong, with
twenty-eight officers, - barely two hundred remain, and most of these
are Headquarters or Transport men. Of officers there are five - Colonel
Kemp, Major Wagstaffe, Master Cockerell, Bobby Little, and Mr.
Waddell, who, by the way, is now Captain Waddell, having succeeded to
the command of his old Company.

Of the rest, our old Colonel is in Scotland, essaying ambitious
pedestrian and equestrian feats upon his new leg. Others have been
drafted to the command of newer units, for every member of "K(1)" is
a Nestor now. Others are home, in various stages of convalescence.
Others, alas! will never go home again. But the gaps have all been
filled up, and once more we are at full strength, comfortably
conscious that whereas a year ago we were fighting to hold a line, and
play for time, and find our feet, while the people at home behind us
were making good, now we are fighting for one thing and one thing
only; and that is, to administer the knock-out blow to Brother Boche.

Our last casualty was Ayling, who left us under somewhat unusual
circumstances.

Towards the end of our last occupancy of trenches the local Olympus
decided that what both sides required, in order to awaken them from
their winter lethargy, or spring lassitude (or whatever it is that
Olympus considers that we in the firing-line are suffering from for
the moment), was a tonic. Accordingly orders were issued for a Flying
Matinée, or trench raid. Each battalion in the Division was to submit
a scheme, and the battalion whose scheme was adjudged the best was
to be accorded the honour - so said the Practical Joke Department - of
carrying out the scheme in person. To the modified rapture of the
Seventh Hairy Jocks their plan was awarded first prize. Headquarters,
after a little excusable recrimination on the subject of unnecessary
zeal and misguided ambition, set to work to arrange rehearsals of our
highly unpopular production.

Brother Boche has grown "wise" to Flying Matinées nowadays, and
to score a real success you have to present him with something
comparatively novel and unexpected. However, our scheme had been
carefully thought out; and, given sufficient preparation, and an
adequate cast, there seemed no reason to doubt that the piece would
have a highly successful run of one night.

At one point in the enemy's trenches opposite to us his barbed-wire
defences had worn very thin, and steps were taken by means of
systematic machine-gun fire to prevent him repairing them. This spot
was selected for the raid. A party of twenty-five was detailed. It was
to be led by Angus M'Lachlan, and was to slip over the parapet on a
given moonless night, crawl across No Man's Land to within striking
distance of the German trench, and wait. At a given moment the signal
for attack would be given, and the wire demolished by a means which
need not be specified here. Thereupon the raiding party were to dash
forward and - to quote the Sergeant-Major - "mix themselves up in it."

Two elements are indispensable in a successful trench-raid - surprise
and despatch. That is to say, you must deliver your raid when and
where it is least expected, and then get home to bed before your
victims have had time to set the machinery of retaliation in motion.
Steps were therefore taken, firstly, to divert the enemy's attention
as far as possible from the true objective of the raid, by a sudden
and furious bombardment of a sector of trenches three hundred yards
away; and secondly, to ensure as far as possible, that the raid,
having commenced at 2 A.M., should conclude at 2.12, sharp.

In order to cover the retirement of the excursionists, Ayling was
ordered to arrange for machine-gun fire, which should sweep the
enemy's parapet for some hundreds of yards upon either flank, and so
encourage the enemy to keep his head down and mind his own business.

The raid itself was a brilliant success. Dug-outs were bombed,
emplacements destroyed, and a respectable bag of captives brought
over. But the element of surprise, upon which so much insistence was
laid above, was visited upon both attackers and attacked. To the
former the contribution came from that well-meaning but somewhat
addlepated warrior, Private Nigg, who formed one of the raiding party.

Nigg's allotted task upon this occasion was to "comb out" certain
German dug-outs. (It may be mentioned that each man had a specific
duty to perform, and a specific portion of the trench opposite to
perform it in; for the raid had been rehearsed several times in a
dummy trench behind the lines constructed exactly to scale from an
aeroplane photograph.) For this purpose he was provided with bombs.
Shortly before two o'clock in the morning the party, headed by Angus
M'Lachlan, crawled over the parapet during a brief lull in the
activities of the Verey lights, and crept steadily, on hands and
knees, across No Man's Land. Fifty yards from the enemy's wire was a
collection of shell-holes, relics of a burst of misdirected energy on
the part of a six-inch battery. Here the raiders disposed themselves,
and waited for the signal.

Now, it is an undoubted fact, that if you curl yourself up, with two
or three preliminary twirls, after the fashion of a dog going to bed,
in a perfectly circular shell-hole, on a night as black as the inside
of the dog in question, you are extremely likely to lose your sense of
direction. This is what happened to Private Nigg. He and his infernal
machines lay uneasily in their appointed shell-hole for some ten
minutes, surrounded by Verey lights which shot suddenly into the sky
with a disconcerting _plop_, described a graceful parabola, burst into
dazzling flame, and fluttered sizzling down. One or two of these fell
quite near Nigg's party, and continued to burn upon the ground, but
the raiders sank closer into their shell-holes, and no alarm resulted.
Once or twice a machine-gun had a scolding fit, and bullets whispered
overhead. But, on the whole, the night was quiet.

Then suddenly, with a shattering roar, the feint-artillery bombardment
broke forth. Simultaneously word was passed along the raiding line to
stand by. Next moment Angus M'Lachlan and his followers rose to their
feet in the black darkness, scrambled out of their nests, and dashed
forward to the accomplishment of their mission.

When Nigg, who had paused a moment to collect his bombs, sprang out of
his shell-hole, not a colleague was in sight. At least, Nigg could
see no one. However, want of courage was not one of his failings. He
bounded blindly forward by himself.

Try as he would he could not overtake the raiding party. However, this
mattered little, for suddenly a parapet loomed before him. In
this same parapet, low down, Nigg beheld a black and gaping
aperture - plainly a loophole of some kind.

Without a moment's hesitation, Nigg hurled a Mills grenade straight
through the loophole, and then with one wild screech of "Come away,
boys!" took a flying leap over the parapet - and landed in his own
trench, in the arms of Corporal Mucklewame.

As already noted, it is difficult, when lying curled up in a circular
shell-hole in the dark, to maintain a true sense of direction.

So the first-fruits of the raid was Captain Ayling, of the _Emma
Gees_. He had stationed himself in a concrete emplacement in the front
line, the better to "observe" the fire of his guns when it should
be required. Unfortunately this was the destination selected by the
misguided Niggs for his first (and as it proved, last) bomb. The
raiders came safely back in due course, but by that time Ayling,
liberally (but by a miracle not dangerously) ballasted with assorted
scrap-iron, was on his way to the First Aid Post.


II

At the present moment we are right back at rest once more, and are
being treated with a consideration, amounting almost to indulgence,
which convinces us that we are being "fattened up" - to employ
the gruesome but expressive phraseology of the moment - for some
particularly strenuous enterprise in the near future.

Well, we are ready. It is nine months since Loos, and nearly six since
we scraped the nightmare mud of Ypres from our boots, _gum, thigh_,
for the last time. Our recent casualties have been light - our only
serious effort of late has been the recapture of the Kidney Bean - the
new drafts have settled down, and the young officers have been
blooded. And above all, victory is in the air. We are going into our
next fight with new-born confidence in the powers behind us. Loos was
an experimental affair; and though to the humble instruments with
which the experiment was made the proceedings were less hilarious than


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14

Online LibraryIan HayAll in It : K(1) Carries On A Continuation of the First Hundred Thousand → online text (page 10 of 14)